Since the mid-1950s, the concept of “deterrence” has been at the forefront of US national security strategy. During the Cold War, deterrence was enshrined in the idea of mutually assured destruction, or MAD. The US and the Soviet Union were both of a mind should either be so bold as to attack the other first with a nuclear weapon, the consequence would be the annihilation of the offending country. Even threatening a nuclear response was unthinkable. Consequently, a superpower standoff existed until the fall of the Soviets and the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991.
Since then, deterrence has taken on a character that includes conventional weapons as well as nuclear. However, to be effective, deterrence requires two primary conditions. First, a country must have a military capability equal to or greater than its adversary. And second, a nation needs to project the will to use its military power if prompted by an adversary. These conditions are the basis of deterrence, whether involving nuclear capability, conventional capability, or some combination.
During the cold war years, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had more soldiers under arms, far more battle tanks, a greater number of artillery pieces, and a larger conventional weapons capability. What kept Moscow from overrunning NATO and all of Europe was the firm understanding should the tide of a conventional arms conflict between NATO and the Kremlin go badly for the US and its allies, playing the tactical nuclear weapons card would be a credible option for the West.
Until now, “[t]he only way that nuclear deterrence theory could have retained so many adherents for so long is by presuming rational decisions by leaders in control of events,” Michael Krepon explained in an article for Forbes. Nonetheless, on the third day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the man with complete control of Russia’s nuclear forces threw down the ultimate doomsday gauntlet. He threatened the first use of his atomic arsenal if the US and NATO challenged his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Krepon refers to this gambit as playing the “Mad Man Card.” But by all accounts, Vladimir Putin is not insane. He’s not mad. He’s simply bad. The Kremlin strongman is calculating and seems to have a much better understanding of his enemies than Biden and NATO have of him. Professor Mel Deaile, Director of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies at the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College, explained in an article for Air University’s online journal Wild Blue Yonder what the Biden administration faces:
“From integrated deterrence to conventional-nuclear integration (CNI), the United States has put forward ideas on how to practice deterrence in the era of strategic competition. Those concepts are now being executed by Putin, and the US would be wise to take notes on how the Russian President has conducted modern deterrence.”
Circumstances never bode well when adversaries confront the US with pages from our playbook. What previous president’s administrations have relied on regarding deterrence with varying degrees of success, the Biden administration has failed to implement in any discernable fashion. The White House went wrong by not understanding the impact of relative threat capability. Biden and the West threaten economic sanctions. Putin invades Ukraine and threatens to use nuclear weapons if the US and NATO employ force to impede “plans for the invasion to be fulfilled.” It’s a simple equation; nuclear weapons are a more compelling deterrent than sanctions.
Putin understood what Biden didn’t. Moscow’s leader openly and convincingly threatened to think the unthinkable. He took brinksmanship to success. Remember, deterrence has two components – capability and the will to use that capability.
With the election of Joe Biden, “The Biden team returned US policy to its predictable ‘realist’ and accommodationist patterns, in contrast to Donald Trump’s strategic mood swings that often complicated his administration’s steady pursuit of transformational security policies,” Joseph Bosco, former China country director in the President George W. Bush Defense Department, opined in The Hill.
The current White House team’s reluctance to meet the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine with proportional force, even without US boots on the ground, like not pursuing Poland’s offer of MIG-29s for the Ukraine air force, reinforces Putin’s view of the US as indecisive, risk averse, and weak-willed. Consequently, Putin wins the deterrence contest.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.
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